Afghan Journal

Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics

You say Obama, I say da Gama, let’s call the whole thing off

November 19, 2010


    By Ian Simpson
    KABUL – NATO leaders wrangling over the Afghanistan war in
Lisbon could be excused if they feel a centuries-old historical
circle closing in on them as they meet next to the Tagus River.

    If leaders including U.S. President Barack Obama step outside
for a breath of fresh air at the riverside Park of Nations, a
glance upward could be enough to give them a touch of historical

    Soaring over them is the Vasco da Gama tower, named for
Portugal’s greatest seafarer and a monument to a seismic shift in
relations between Asia and Europe.

    The futuristic structure is shaped like the billowing sail of
a Portuguese caravel, the revolutionary ship that da Gama used to
sail around Africa and open the sea route to India in 1498.

    When the great globaliser headed out from the Tagus he
changed world history — and Afghanistan’s role in it.

    Portugal’s caravels opened up the first direct route between
Europe and China, India and the rest of Asia. The tiny ships made
instantly obselete the fabled Silk Road trade routes that had
enriched empires and rulers across Central Asia.

    Afghanistan was a knot at the heart of the Silk Road.
Venetian Marco Polo, his dealmaker’s eye on the Chinese market,
was among thousands of travellers and merchants whose caravans
passed through Afghanistan and its mountain passes over the

    Revenues from the interconnected routes that carried Asian
spices and fineries to Europe had helped pay for flourishing
courts at Balkh, Herat, Bamiyan and now-vanished Kapisa, near the
current site of the dusty U.S. base at Bagram.

    Afghanistan was barely recovering from the devastation
wrought by Genghis Khan — described by one historian as the 13th
century’s atomic bomb — when the Portuguese sailor made the Silk
Road yesterday’s news.

    With its trading routes shut down, Afghanistan only slowly
emerged from obscurity as a 19th century buffer state in the
Great Game for Asian mastery, then as a Cold War battleground.

    As U.S-led NATO forces head into their 10th year battling the
Taliban, Afghan leaders and business people are looking back to
the Silk Road for inspiration.

    After all, they say, Afghanistan’s neighbours have to get
their oil and gas and other goods to the world and each other.
What better way than through Afghanistan, at the centre of
Central Asia?

    Da Gama and his four-ship fleet knocked Afghanistan out of
the world picture for centuries. NATO leaders would heartily love
to take a page from da Gama’s book, get their troops out, and
return it to backwater status.


    Ian Simpson was Reuters’ chief correspondent in Lisbon from
2001 to 2006. He now is reporting from Afghanistan.

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